It was one of Europe’s worst-ever environmental disasters. But 20 years after the oil tanker “Prestige” broke apart off northwestern Spain, covering thousands of kilometres (miles) of Atlantic coast with crude oil and killing 200,000 seabirds, some fear it could happen again.
The tragedy unfolded just off one of Spain’s most scenic coastlines, turning the beaches of Galicia “black”, devastating the region’s fishing industry and leaving a trail of death and damage as far as France and Portugal.
The shock is still raw two decades on, said Alberto Blanco, former mayor of the seaside town of Muxia, close to where the single-hulled Bahama-flagged Liberian tanker first got into trouble during a storm on November 13, 2002.
The crew issued a distress call after a gaping hole several metres wide appeared in the ageing vessel’s hull. As soon as he heard the news, Blanco recalled rushing to the seafront and seeing the vessel was “very close to the coast and that the situation was very serious.
“The ship was listing in very rough seas, with a swell that was six to eight metres (20-26 feet) high,” he said. The following day its 77,000 tonnes of heavy-grade fuel oil began leaking into the sea.
With the storm still raging, the Spanish authorities tried to tow the tanker further out to sea, in a controversial decision that went against an emergency plan drawn up by experts calling for it to be brought to port to contain the leak.
– 200,000 birds killed – After six days adrift, the vessel broke in two and sank some 270 kilometres off the Galician coast, coming to rest at a depth of 3,500 metres and causing the worst-ever oil slick on the Iberian peninsula.
“The scope of the catastrophe was enormous,” with consequences “not only in Spain, but also in Portugal and France,” said Sara del Rio, a researcher with Greenpeace Spain.—INP